Joint Warfighting And The MAGTF
SUBJECT AREA - Warfighting
Title: Joint Warfighting and the MAGTF
Author: Major Stephen M. Douma, United States Marine Corps
Thesis: The Marine Corps must change its attitude toward the MAGTF and our
warfighting doctrine, if it wants to conduct effective future operations with
the other services.
Background: Future wars will probably be fought in a joint environment. The
joint commander will usually divide assigned forces into functional, or
military service, components. The Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF)
proven effective in independent operations, has difficulty merging into the
joint environment. Despite evidence to the contrary, Marine leaders insist
the MAGTF can operate as a unique combined-arms force within the joint
setting. Doctrine and organizational structure do not allow individual combat
elements to operate separately from the rest of the MAGTF. The joint
commander must decide how to integrate the combined-arms MAGTF into the
combined-arms joint force. His decision must maximize combat power without
hampering unity of effort.
Recommendation: The Marine Corps should objectively examine the Marine Corps'
warfighting methods. The MAGTF organization, and its doctrine, can fight in
situations where it is most effective. When joint commanders do not need an
integrated combined-arms force, Marines should provide units tailored to the
mission that needs to be accomplished.
Thesis. The Marine Corps must change its attitude toward the MAGTF and our
warfighting doctrine, if it wants to conduct effective future operations with
the other services.
A. Beginnings of combined-arms thinking.
B. Mission change to expeditionary role.
C. Development of MAGTF concept.
D. Modern MAGTF organization and doctrine.
II. Methods of employing combat forces.
A. CINC's alternatives for exercising COCOM.
B. Joint force organizational structures.
1. Functional component organization.
2. Service component organization.
3. Commonality between component structures.
III. Employing the MAGTF.
A. The MAGTF in an independent role.
B. The MAGTF in a joint environment.
1. Functional component environment.
2. Service component environment.
C. Joint commander's alternatives to employ the MAGTF.
1. Independent operations.
2. Joint operations.
IV. Recommendations for the future.
A. Independent operations.
B. Joint operations.
1. Functional component assignment.
2. Service component assignment.
C. Necessity to adapt Marine Corps organization and doctrine.
Joint warfighting is the topic of the 1990s. Many have commented on the
US military's ability to conduct joint warfare. Some say our armed forces are
adapting to this new environment with little difficulty. Others argue that
our services will never agree on joint doctrine, and that joint warfighting
will always be an interservice contest for "territorial rights."
The Marine Corps' current mission was born in the twentieth century --
provide expeditionary forces for the establishment and/or protection of
advanced naval bases. This mission, combined with World War II experience,
produced the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) organizational structure and
doctrine. However, the Marine Corps has not always operated in its
expeditionary role. It has also often fought alongside its sister services in
major land battles.
The New World Order is forming a different pattern for the future. The
Marine Corps is an integral part of this evolution and it recognizes the need
to adjust to its new environment. Future warfighting will embrace jointness.
Though the MAGTF has proved to be a success for many years, it may not fit
into the joint mold. Despite evidence to the contrary, officials contend that
the MAGTF is a "joint warfighting force," and that Marine doctrine blends well
with joint doctrine. We should objectively examine the MAGTF to find out if
it truly does integrate with joint forces. If not, the Marine Corps should
adapt to reflect modern warfighting procedures. The Marine Corps must change
its attitude toward the MAGTF and our warfighting doctrine, if it wants to
conduct effective future operations with the other services.
The evolution to the Marine Corps' current role was a gradual one. As
naval technology shifted from sail power to steam, the US identified the need
for advanced naval coaling bases. As the Navy's "infantry arm," the Marine
Corps began to look at the advanced basing problem in 1901. Field exercises
and studies followed, and a permanent Advanced Base Force was established in
1914. Numbering approximately 1750 men, this combined-arms force was
reinforced with a Marine Corps aviation detachment in 1914.1
Renamed the Expeditionary Force in 1921, the Quantico, Virginia-based
unit was joined by a smaller, sister organization, based in San Diego,
California. The Marine Corps began experimenting with rudimentary landing
craft, as exercises continued. However, the scope of these tests was limited
and participation was modest. In 1927, The Joint Board issued a directive
requiring the Marine Corps to provide and maintain forces
... for land operations in support of the fleet for the initial
seizure and defense of advanced bases and for such limited
auxiliary land operations as are essential to the prosecution of
the naval campaign.2
The National Security Act of 1947, with its several amendments, codified
the Marine Corps' role in the national defense. In part, it specifies that
the Marine Corps shall be organized to
... provide fleet marine forces of combined arms, together with
supporting air components, for service with the fleet in the
seizure and defense of advanced naval bases and for the conduct of
such land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a
The Marine Corps developed the MAGTF in the 1960s. The Marine Corps saw
that it could exploit the Cold War strategy of "Flexible Response," and define
its future role in a full range of missions. It formed a force that could
fight in conflicts from general war to what is now known as low intensity
conflict. The Corps improved its strategic and tactical mobility in the 1970s
and 1980s, and created the Marine Expeditionary Unit, Marine Expeditionary
Brigade, and Marine Expeditionary Force organizational structure. The
innovative feature was the doctrinal integration of ground, air, and combat
service support forces into one unit -- the MAGTF.
The latest development affecting the MAGTF was the 1986 Omnibus
Agreement. This agreement virtually guaranteed that Marine aviation will fly
in support of Marine ground forces. Marine ground commanders can now have the
full range of aviation capability dedicated to their sole support.
Today's MAGTF is a task-organized force. It can range from a company-
sized Special Purpose MAGTF, to a Marine Expeditionary Corps, which includes
most of the combat forces in the Fleet Marine Force. Whatever its size or
task, the typical MAGTF always has a Command Element, a Ground Combat Element
(GCE), an Aviation Combat Element (ACE), and a Combat Service Support Element
(CSSE). The MAGTF fights as a combined-arms team. Marine doctrine emphasizes
total integration of ground combat, air and ground combat support, and combat
service support units into one cohesive, warfighting force. MAGTFs are
unique, in that all combat elements are doctrinally interwoven. The tightly
linked units form a fighting force whose total combat power is greater than
the sum of its parts.
Methods of Employing US Combat Forces
The theater Commander-in-Chief (CINC) has several methods for exercising
(1) Through Service component commanders.
(2) Through functional component commanders, if established for a
particular operational purpose.
(3) Through a subordinate unified command, which the CINC may establish
when so authorized through the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff.
(4) Through a single-Service force reporting directly to the CINC. Normally,
missions requiring operations of a single-Service force will be assigned to
the applicable Service component commander. Under exceptional
circumstances, a CINC may establish a separate single-Service force.
(5) Through the commander of a joint task force who reports directly to the
(6) By attaching elements of one force to another force.
(7) Directly to specific operational forces that, due to the mission assigned
and the urgency of the situation, must remain immediately responsive to
In four of the seven methods listed above, the CINC employs combat
forces in a joint setting. Joint forces are composed of units from two or
more military departments. They are formed at the theater level or as part of
smaller Joint Task Forces. There are two basic ways to arrange a joint force,
depending on situational requirements. Commanders can organize the joint
components by function or by military service.
The joint force commander may assign forces to functional components,
forming ground component (GCC), air component (ACC), and naval component (NCC)
commands. Units report to the component based on their warfighting function,
and not by service affiliation. The GCC commands all ground forces, the ACC
controls air assets, and the NCC is in charge of all naval units. The joint
commander enhances unity of ef fort and control because like forces are
subordinate to each functional component commander.
The joint force commander can also organize components by service, one
each for the Army, Air Force. Navy, and Marine Corps. Combat unit commanders
report to the joint commander via their service components. Command
arrangements are streamlined, but control of forces becomes more complicated.
Each military service can operate in more than one functional area and control
is not exercised on a functional basis. Warfighting becomes a test of
coordination skills for the joint and component commanders, and their staffs.
Whether components are organized functionally or by service, the joint
force (less the Marine Corps) is broadly defined along ground, air, and naval
functional lines. The Army provides the ground forces; the Air Force
furnishes the aviation units; and the Navy rounds out the force with seapower.
Though all of the services have air assets. each service primarily contributes
to only one of the three dimensions of warfighting -- ground, air, or sea.
There is a common thread in both component arrangements. Command may be
established by function or by service, but the joint commander still generally
controls the force by function.
Employing the MAGTF
The combined-arms MAGTF adds a fourth dimension to the joint force.
Uniting air and ground combat capabilities into one entity, the MAGTF provides
a unique force to the CINC. The MAGTF, influenced heavily by amphibious and
expeditionary doctrine, is usually focused toward conducting independent
operations, usually with naval forces. Marines have fought well in these
types of operations, because of the MAGTF's combined-arms task organization.
The MAGTF's self-contained structure of ground, air and service support units
brings the entire spectrum of warfighting capability to the battlefield. The
MAGTF is successful in the independent role because it uses fixed- and rotary-
wing aviation in close doctrinal integration with ground forces. The Navy-
Marine team can fight independently, with little or no assistance from other
forces. Or, it can act as an enabling force, while waiting for reinforcements
from other services to arrive in the operating area.
Although there are occasions when the MAGTF will be employed in an
independent role, most future conflicts will probably be joint ventures. On
the modern battlefield, "Joint Warfare is essential to victory."6 Success
depends on unity of effort and, usually, unity of command. Marine forces can
add a great deal of flexible combat capability to the joint force. However,
because it does not perform a distinct, separate warfighting function, the
MAGTF does not fit well into the joint structure. One could argue that it
does not fit into the joint structure, at all. The combined-arms nature of
the MAGTF, so very important to independent operations, may limit the CINC's
The MAGTF organizational structure cannot always integrate smoothly into
the joint force. Doctrinally interdependent, Marine air and ground elements
find it difficult to operate effectively, without relying on the remaining
elements. Again, the integration of aviation and ground units is the
important feature. In independent operations, aviation is a potent combat
multiplier, because the ACE works in close coordination with the ground
forces. In joint operations, the harmony between the Marine air and ground
forces becomes a significant liability when merging the MAGTF into the joint
When the joint force is functionally organized, Army units go to the
GCC, Air Force units to the ACC, and naval forces to the NCC. If the joint
commander divides the MAGTF by function, the GCE reports to the GCC and the
ACE reports to the ACC. The CSSE has to be split into two detachments, one
each to support the GCE and ACE. This appears to be a simple procedure, but
it is virtually impossible to achieve. The MAGTF employs ground, air, and
service support elements as one combat unit. MAGTF doctrine and training
become ineffective if combat elements separate and then individually merge
into each of the CINC's joint components.
In a functionally organized joint force, the MAGTF combat elements would
be subordinate to the component commanders. There is little, if any, need for
the MAGTF commander, and his command element, if the individual combat
elements are under the command of each joint component. One could argue that
there would be no reason for the Marine Corps to provide a MAGTF to the joint
force, in the first place. The Marine Corps could assign separate ground and
aviation forces directly to the functional component commanders. The MAGTF
would not be used as a distinct combat force. Unity of command is enhanced
for the joint commander, but he loses the synergy enjoyed when the MAGTF is
employed as an integrated air-ground force.
If the joint force is organized along service component lines, command
relationships are simplified. The four service components can fight according
to their own individual, and familiar, doctrine. The Marine service component
controls the MAGTF, eliminating the need to adapt its doctrine to the
requirements of another service. However, the joint commander must now
coordinate two separate air-ground forces. The first consists of the GCC and
ACC components, making up most of the land-based theater forces. They, along
with the Navy, can project the full range of combat power brought to the
theater. The second air-ground force is the smaller MAGTF. It also works
closely with the Navy, but it has limited ground-based fire support. To
offset its light fire support capability, the MAGTF uses its aviation assets
to fly in support of its ground forces. Unity of effort becomes a concern to
the joint force commander, since he now controls two separate air-ground
forces in his theater.
In either case, the joint force commander must decide how to employ the
MAGTF. One solution is to have the Marines operate as a separate, independent
force. Working with naval forces, the MAGTF can operate as part of an
enabling force, a strategic or operational reserve, or in independent
operations that support the joint force. However, the joint commander may not
be able to employ the MAGTF in continuous combat operations. The MAGTF's
combat power may not be used to its full potential, when assigned to this
specialized role. Unused combat capability in the operating theater drains
logistics resources and provides little service to the joint commander.
Another solution is to integrate the MAGTF into the joint force and
allow it to operate in its own area of operations. Coordination between the
Marine service component and other components is critical to executing the
joint commander's campaign plan. History has proven that such coordination is
possible, but it requires the proper blend of command and staff personalities,
to be truly effective. This warfighting arrangement is most often used today.
The joint commander can take full advantage of all of his assigned forces.
However, only the strong personalities of the individuals involved have
ensured its success.
Recommendation for the Future
In the future, the Marine Corps will fight much as it has in the past.
First, it will operate independently, most likely with support from naval
forces. These will probably be in limited conflicts or irregular operations,
such as non-combatant evacuation, forward presence, or humanitarian assistance
duties. Marine forces may only have contact with Army or Air Force units for
support operations. The MAGTF's current organization and unique doctrine make
it the best force for these types of operations. It can give the CINC a
capability matched to the need of the situation, without the need to form a
The Marine Corps must also be ready to participate in medium- or high-
intensity land warfare, such as the Gulf War, the Vietnam War, and the Korean
War. In these large-scale conflicts, Marines may not be able to fight as a
MAGTF. Joint forces may not need independent air-ground Marine forces. The
most efficient use of combat power may be to place the GCE and ACE under the
command of the GCC and ACC. If not directly assigned, Marine units may be
attached to, or in support of, the joint components, with a Marine in command
of these forces. In any of these cases, the MAGTF commander may no longer be
a warfighter. The Marine Corps may only provide combat forces to the ground,
air, and naval components. At the very least, this functional arrangement is
unconventional thinking in today's Marine Corps and is not in keeping with our
current organization or doctrine.
A third alternative is for Marines to be ready to fight as a cohesive
MAGTF, assigned to the joint force. This brings the full potential of the
MAGTF's combat power to bear, in one place. It may not be the joint
commander's most efficient employment of forces. Nonetheless, the commander
may feel that he needs the integrated combat power the MAGTF has to offer.
The joint commander must choose the method of warfighting organization
that is most effective in future conflicts. His method of employing Marine
forces may not be in concert with our warfighting structure and thinking. The
Marine Corps must be flexible and able to employ our forces in the way the
joint commander finds best.
The MAGTF has served the Marine Corps well in independent operations.
Our unique use of aviation to support ground operations enhances our
warfighting ability. However, the Marine Corps continues to extol the virtues
of our combined-arms force, even when it detracts from our efficient ability
to conduct joint operations. Our attitude toward the MAGTF and its doctrine
may not be in keeping with our new warfighting environment.
As we look toward the New World Order and future warfighting, the US
military must heed the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower:
War is taking any problem exactly as you take a problem of
your own life, stripping it down to its essentials, determining
for yourself what is important and what you can emphasize to the
advantage of your side; what you can emphasize that will be to the
disadvantage of the other; making a plan accordingly -- and then
fighting just as hard as you know how, never letting anything
distract you from the prosecution of that conception.
If, as Services, we get too critical among ourselves,
hunting for exact limiting lines in the shadow land of
responsibility as between... [the Services], hunting for and
spending our time arguing about it, we will deserve the very fate
we will get in war, which is defeat. We have got to be of one
family, and it is more important today than it ever has been.7
Marines must also understand that
Doctrine establishes a particular way of thinking about war and a
way of fighting, a philosophy of leading Marines in combat, a
mandate for professionalism, and a common language. In short, it
establishes the way we practice our profession. In this manner,
doctrine provides the basis for harmonious actions and mutual
Jointness takes the best from each military service and uses it to the
nation's greatest advantage. Marine Corps thinking must be in harmony with
this joint philosophy. We must put aside service parochialism, and truly
examine the MAGTF organization and doctrine, as it relates to fighting in the
modern joint environment.
First, we should keep the MAGTF organization and improve its associated
doctrine. The CINC can then employ this Marine force when, and where, he
considers it appropriate. Second, Marines must also be willing to recognize
that the MAGTF is not suitable for every situation. Our procedures need to
change to allow for situations where our current warfighting methods no longer
serve us. Our absolute requirement for Marine aviation to support ground
units should be the focus of this effort.
When studying these issues, Marine leaders must remember that doctrine
and organizational structure should not drive future changes. Planners should
first look at the missions the CINCs may assign to Marine forces, then develop
warfighting concepts to fit the missions. Once the methods of warfighting are
established, force structure can be developed. Finally, the new concepts and
organizational structure should be codified into doctrine and units trained to
the new procedures. We must not try to force our warfighting organization and
procedures into an environment where they don't fit.
Our Marine Corps must be ready to conduct both independent and joint
operations in the future. The expeditionary nature of the MAGTF, and its
method of deployment, makes it the force most likely to be first in the area
of conflict. Marine Corps units should also merge rapidly with the joint
force structure, when required. This flexible foundation will enable us to
train Marines to fight as part of a MAGTF or as augment forces for other
components, as the situation dictates.
The Marine Corps should change with the times, so that we continue to
provide our best warfighting forces to the CINC. Joint warfighting is the way
of the future, and the Marine Corps must learn operate as one with the other
military services. The changes should not be radical. No major overhaul of
MAGTF doctrine is necessary. Joint warfighting is only another step in the
evolution of warfare. Our leaders must ensure that the Marine Corps is a part
of this evolution.
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